ASCF Report | 6.9.14
By Alan W. Dowd
President Obama, as is proven after every major speech he
delivers, is a Rorschach inkblot: Some see the silhouette of a leader worthy of
placement on Mount Rushmore. To them, he can say or do no wrong. Those who are
not so captivated by his words see a different image and hear a different
message. Consider the president’s addressto the graduating cadets at West Point.
First, there’s the president’s style—how his speechwriters
craft his speeches, how he delivers them, how he makes his case. Put simply, he
often sounds more like a professor than a commander-in-chief. It’s something
his supporters love, and it’s something his critics have always hoped he would grow
out of. After five years and four months, that’s not going to happen. The
president’s style is the president’s style. Hence, the president makes his case with an
army of straw-men:
not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian war,” he
says of Syria. Who has proposed such an approach? Even the interventionists
have advocated nothing more than arming the rebels and striking Assad’s forces
by air—an approach that worked in ending ethno-sectarian wars in Bosnia, Kosovo
“A strategy that involves invading every country
that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.” Again, who has
proposed such a strategy? Perhaps the only thing more naïve and unsustainable
than invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is withdrawing from
countries that need our help in fighting terrorist networks.
“Military action cannot be the only—or even
primary—component of our leadership in every instance.” Advocates of a strong
defense and a forward-leaning America agree, and believe in peace through
strength precisely because they know that a strong, engaged America makes
military action less likely.
“We should not go it alone. Instead, we must
mobilize allies and partners to take collective action.” When did America last
“go it alone”? Media—and White House—mantras notwithstanding, it wasn’t during
the demonized Bush administration. In all, 38 countries sent troops to Iraq. To
be sure, the U.S. represented the lion’s share (86 percent) of the coalition in
Iraq. But that’s less than the U.S. share (88 percent) of the force that fought
Quoting President Eisenhower, the president
admonishes the cadets, “War is mankind’s most tragic and stupid folly; to seek
or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men.” Who has
sought the deliberate provocation of war, except our enemies? That list of
enemies must include Saddam Hussein, who invited U.S. intervention by playing
chicken with three successive U.S. administrations, gaming the UN, pretending
to have WMDs for the sake of internal deterrence and making common cause with
terror groups. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was not connected to al Qaeda’s 9/11
attacks, but Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was connected to al Qaeda’s Abu Musab
Zarqawi, the bin Laden lieutenant who ignited Iraq’s postwar war. As Tony Blairrevealed in his memoir, Zarqawi traveled to Iraq in 2002, met “senior Iraqis”
and established a presence in Iraq long before the U.S.-led invasion. What
Saddam Hussein failed to grasp in such risky dealings was that 9/11 had changed
the very DNA of U.S. national-security policy. Every American citizen—whether
for or against the war—recognized this. For evidence, recall that 77 senators
voted to take down Saddam’s regime.
a professor, the president speaks in detached terms, almost as if he is a
well-informed bystander rather than the leader of the Free World, authorized to
wield enormous amounts of political, economic and military power: He
congratulates the way his administration “brought the eyes of the world to
unstable parts of Ukraine” and “helped isolate Russia right away” but does
little to bolster Ukraine and nothing to punish Putin. He reports, “Russia’s
aggression toward former Soviet states unnerves capitals in Europe,” but he does
little to reassure those capitals. He explains, “There are no easy answers, no
military solution” in Syria but acts as if 36 months of speeches demanding that
“Assad must go” suffice.
Like a professor, the president lards his policy initiatives
with qualifiers and caveats—thus diminishing those very initiatives. Take
Afghanistan, where he vowed to pursue “our vital national interest” by
deploying extra troops—and then promptly put a deadline on how long those
troops would stay. Or take Libya, where he vowed to help our NATO allies “protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a
massacre”—before his spokesmen downplayed the operation as a “time-limited, scope-limited” sideshow. Worse,
when the White House grudgingly agreed to continue U.S. air operations after an
urgent appeal from the allies, a NATO
official emphasized that the extension of U.S. airpower “expires on
Monday”—a bruising metaphor for American leadership.
Turning from style to content, the West
Point speech seemed smallish, which is to say, tactical, un-strategic, the
opposite of sweeping. This is to be expected from a president who prides
himself in hitting singles. But when the White
House promises a major policy pronouncement, when the president says he
will offer a “vision for how the United States of America and our military
should lead,” it’s fair to expect more than a
varnished recap of the previous five years.
The defense that the president is merely reflecting the
world-weariness of an inward-looking electorate may be accurate, but that
doesn’t make it right. Leadership, especially in the realm of foreign policy
and national security, is more often than not about setting a direction and a destination—and
then convincing, persuading, cajoling the American people to follow. Think
about Lincoln transforming the Civil War from a struggle to preserve the Union
into a struggle to abolish slavery; FDR walking the American people from
isolation to arming Great Britain to total war for total victory; Truman making
the case for global containment; Reagan reviving the nation’s flagging
commitment to what Truman began, pressing America’s economic-technological-military
advantage and demanding that Gorbachev tear down the Iron Curtain; Bush 41
making the case for continued U.S. engagement in post-Cold War Europe, and
building political support at home and abroad for Desert Storm.
That’s what leadership looks like in the realm of national
defense and foreign policy.
president says, “We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us.” True. But
it’s difficult to recruit and retain partners when the president fails to
follow through on threats (see the erased “red line” in Syria), or focuses on “nation-building
at home” (see the avoidable disaster in Iraqand the worries in Afghanistan), reneges on commitments (see the reversal on missile defense in Eastern Europe), shrugs his
shoulders at naked aggression (see Russia’s annexation of Crimea) or sends a
bill to allies in need (see French counterterrorism operations in Mali).
The president wants to launch a new counterterrorism fund to
“train, build capacity and facilitate partner countries on the front lines.” Sadly,
most front-line states are not up to the task. The Philippines has smothered a
jihadist insurgency but only with lots of help from U.S. Special Operations
assets. Pakistan, at the other end of the spectrum, was unaware that the most
wanted terrorist on earth was hiding in plain sight, or was actively hiding
him, or is so dysfunctional that its army and intelligence service are fighting
on opposite sides.
the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option,” the president
declaims. “We don’t have a choice to ignore what happens beyond our borders.”
He then cites a litany of global crises and hotspots—“Syrian brutality,”
“Russian provocations,” “regional aggression” in the South China Sea, kidnapped
schoolgirls in Nigeria. He has not ignored these, but neither has he responded
to any of them, making him an isolationist by default. At least previous presidents
had the excuse of ignorance (we simply didn’t know what was happening on the
other side of the world in the 1800s) or powerlessness (America had few muscles
to flex before the 1900s).
of flexing muscles, the president had the temerity to say, “We cannot hesitate
to protect our people.” Yet that’s what happened when Americans came under
attack in Benghazi.
of American diplomacy and foreign assistance, as well as the sacrifices of our
military, more people live under elected governments today than at any time in
human history,” the president told the men and women of West Point—the long
gray line that serves as civilization’s first responder and last line of
defense. Set against the backdrop of the rest of the
speech—and the past five years—it’s difficult to conclude anything other than
that the military was added as something of an afterthought.
In fact, the U.S. Armed Forces are the main reason the zone
of free governments and free markets has expanded the past hundred years. Normandy
and Europe weren’t liberated by foreign assistance. Tojo and Hitler weren’t
defeated by diplomats. West Berlin wasn’t sustained by State Department communiques.
The West wasn’t protected from Stalin by ambassadors. Korea, Kuwait and Kosovo
weren’t freed by the Agency for International Development. Afghanistan and Iraq
were not liberated by loan guarantees or grain shipments. It wasn’t foreign aid
that sent Zarqawi and bin Laden to wherever mass-murderers go when they die.
The Horn of Africa and Hormuz, the Sinai and South China Sea, are not kept open
by international conferences.
There is nothing
wrong with applauding peacemakers, diplomats and foreign aid programs. All
promote American interests. But there is something fundamentally wrong with putting
diplomacy and foreign aid on par with the courage demanded by deterrence or by combat.
The president seems to forget that those Americans who “won the peace”—a phrase he likes to use—first defeated our enemies:
Truman and Marshall conceived a plan to rebuild Western Europe and prevent Europe
from sliding back into war or tyranny, the latter commanded the U.S. Armed
Forces and the former vanquished two appalling regimes and mapped out the global containment of another.
he shepherded Germany back into the family of nations, before he presided over
a partnership enfolding the Americas and Europe, Eisenhower led an army of
armies into the heart of Germany.
Reagan called Gorbachev a “friend,” he revitalized America’s deterrent strength, launched proxy wars
against Gorbachev’s empire, waged economic warfare against the Soviet state and
won the Cold War.
To extend the
president’s baseball metaphor, his foreign policy looks like a wasted at-bat—at
least relative to the titans who launched and steered the American Century. But
we shouldn’t be surprised by this. After all, the fact that the president is
outlining his vision “for how the United States of America and our military
should lead” five-and-a-half years into his administration tells us all we need
to know about his interest in foreign policy and national security.
*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.